Jeju Island – the hidden gem in South Korea

January 02, 2019 by Loes Kieboom

Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese people might be confused to read that Jeju Island should be a hidden gem, as it is said that Jeju International Airport is known as the one sometimes even more frequently visited than the one in Seoul (I suppose these rumors are more about the use of the landing and starting tracks though).

For western foreigners, having South Korea on their bucket list only for their famous barbecue and visiting the Gangnam district in Seoul due to the famous song, Jeju Island is definitely less known. It makes it a beautiful destination for travelers not being afraid to communicate with hands and feet and use the last to explore the nature of this magical island.

Why Facebook and sex made me traveling to Jeju Island

Well, talking about social media and its related advertisement activities – I’m not a big fan of it – BUT personalized advertisements seem to make sense now and then. As I have been traveling a lot around Asia, I seemed to be in the Facebook target group of the tourism board of South Korea with the campaign ‘Image Your Korea’ which showed themed video clips presenting different faces of South Korea.

I was actually just trying to set up a plan for my further traveling, so after seeing these clips appearing again and again in my Facebook timeline I started to do some research on South Korea, the costs and a travel itinerary with help of the locations shown in the clips. Very soon it was clear that I would love to visit South Korea and that Jeju Island has to be part of the trip: volcanic landscape, subtropical climate and one of the main travel destinations of Korean people, especially honeymooners.

Oh, and it has ‘Jeju Love Land’ – a sculpture park focused on the theme of sex. So due to this combination of nature, culture and weird things my decision was made and the flight tickets booked.

Jeju Olle – paths from the doorstep of your hotel to the beauty of the island

Jeju Island was my first destination in South Korea, so I did not really know what would expect me. The island is very touristy, but actually only for Asian tourists, it took me about four days to spot the first western tourist. This means in case you don’t speak Korean you will face some challenges now and then. Read about about my adventure of the language barrier in Jeju, especially in regards to the public transport.

But to be honest, the bus should not be used too much on Jeju anyway as there is a much better way to come around: by foot on the socalled Olle trails. The word ‘Olle’ comes from the local dialect and originally means the small path from one’s doorstep to the street. The official Olle trails on Jeju will lead you all around the island, paths along the coast, along waterfalls, volcanic coast formations, natural ocean pools and at least in August and September along forests and meadows which have the purest green you can even imagine.

The paths itself are amazing, well maintained and easy to walk, so you can really put your energy in enjoying the amazing view to the coastline which is changing around every corner.

You will meet Koreans on the walking paths who look as if they just dropped out of a outdoor shop catalog, I never saw so many well equipped hikers (and I have been growing up in Austria in the middle of the Alps) – it seems to be a kind of must in Korea as I recognized this more often in mountain areas.

All paths are marked with the Olle ribbons and now and then you will even find a board with some explanation about the place, which even has an English description.

Cliffs, volcanoes, waterfalls and selfies

The main sights are also easily accessible by car with a short walk to the point of interest. Here is where you can get the full Korean tourist behavior experience in regards of watching people to get their perfect Instagram shot, you might even be part of it as a photographer now and then.

The mixture of lonely, peaceful tracks with a nice ocean breeze through the nature and the action at the sights made the perfect mixture for me.

The Olle tracks itself are for free, some of the sights are charged for around 2000 won  – like waterfalls and interesting coast areas or volcano peaks.

Although the landmarks were sometimes pretty crowded, I felt that as a photographer you can fit in easily – at least you don’t have to worry that you are the person getting in the way with your camera as everybody is trying to do his or her thing with all kinds of picture-making equipment – both smartphones and professional. It more feels like a huge photo shooting location and when you take your time and pace you will be rewarded for it with possibilities to shoot extraordinary nature scenes. Also I sometimes enjoyed watching and photographing the chaos around me. I actually made much more pictures in South Korea within a short time than anywhere else, maybe driven by the strong Korean photographing and selfie culture.

Grandfathers guarding against demons and diving women

Things which you will find all over Jeju Island are the culture stories of  very special strong women and strong men, both used as symbols for Jeju island.

Dol Hareubang protecting from the different realities

The Dol Hareubang statues are placed all over Jeju Island. They are made from volcanic basalt and always come with a hat, a grinning face expression and a certain position of the hands.

Dol Hareubang means grandfather or senior in the Jeju dialect and the statues are meant to protect against demons traveling between different realities at entrances.

Haenyeo – strong women as the laborer of the family

Even more relevant for Jeju’s culture are the Haenyeo, an expression for the island’s female divers. The story goes back until the 17th century when women started to work as a fishing diver as many men died during high-sea fishing accidents and during war. Also its said that women can deal better with the cold water as having more subcutaneous fat. However due to the fact that these Haenyoe divers replaced their husbands as the primary laborer in the family, the structure within the family changed as well: the female divers being the head of the families and often the men took care of children and household.

Although nowadays the family structures might be different the culture of the strong and independent Haenyeo is still existent and is inscribed in the UNESCO Intangile Cultural Heritage list since 2016.

In Jeju the Haenyeo appears as the female mascot of the island, which is used for advertisement or toilet signs and in several statues.

The Korean government gave the diving women of Jeju an exclusive right to sell fresh seafood and is subsidizing their gear which means that you can spot the Haenyeo in the water along the coast during low tides and during walking in their special gear to work.

At Seongsan Illchulbong Peak within the fee admission area there is a beach where the female divers are at certain times of the day for more or a less making pictures. As I was able to see them in ‘real life’ I skipped that photo shoot.

Where to place your camera on Jeju for sunset and sunrise

In Seogwipo-si you have a lot of places where to enjoy the sunset, usually with a view on a lighthouse.

The best way to spend your sunsets would be around Saeseom Island which is connected with a pretty bridge to the main island, which is also colorful lightening up after sunset.

Another sunset in Seogwipo-si I spent on the docks of the harbor, which is getting crowded by local fishermen in the evening hours and from there you have a both a beautiful view on the lighthouses and also to the city lightening up slowly with the main volcano Hallasan in the background.

When you plan to visit the Yongmeori coast with its incredible volcanic cliff formations you can combine this with the sunset to view from the Sanbanggulsa temple with a beautiful view over the coast and the last light over the so called Dragon’s back.

Seongsan Illchulbong – the sunrise peak

And last but not least there is of course Seongsan Illchulbong Peak which is also called Sunrise Peak, so you know where it is about.

This was the area of Jeju which I actually enjoyed most. Not only about climbing the volcano crater, but also walking around in the area along the Olle paths and enjoy the view to the volcano crater sitting in the ocean from different perspectives.

I decided to climb the peak for sunset to enjoy the sun going down on the back of the volcanic shaped island and found a fantastic location along the coast with green mossed stones in the ocean to see the sun setting next to Illchulbong.

Why you should leave Jeju slowly

Actually you should not leave Jeju Island at all, but when you really have to and you have some time, a strong stomach against seasickness and are traveling in one of the warmer months of the year I really encourage you to leave or also arrive at the island by ferry.

I took the ferry from Jeju to Mokpo and really enjoyed the 6 hour ride leaving from Jeju-do and having a last glimpse on the beautiful island, enjoying the wind on deck of the boat with nothing around but ocean. Coming closer to the coast of the main land hundreds of small different shaped islands will appear and you will pass under the gigantic impressive Mokpo bridge as well.

I love to travel by boats or any other kind of slow travel where the landscape is passing by like watching a documentary, just live!

Oh, for all of you who have been waiting for the experience in ‘Jeju Love Land’ – the sex theme park:

I decided not to go there as I found my love to Jeju in nature, which is sometimes even kind of sexy as well .

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